The year 2016 may be the last time Maine’s federal and state candidates can win with less than half of the popular vote. A non-partisan grassroots committee has amassed over 75,000 signatures to put ranked choice voting on next year’s referendum ballot.
Ranked choice voting is a method of ensuring the winner receives a majority of the votes. Instead of voting only for their preferred candidate, voters rank them in order of preference.
If the leading candidate receives less than a majority, the candidate who received the fewest votes has his or her votes redistributed to the remaining candidates. A winner is declared after a candidate receives more than half of the votes.
Maine would be the first to adopt the measure on a statewide basis. Ranked Choice Voting Maine began working on placing the measure on the ballot in 2014.
Ranked choice voting was first used in Maine during the 2011 Portland mayoral election. The method is used in 11 other U.S cities in mayoral elections, as well as in most Australian elections, and for a century in Canadian and Great Britain parliamentary leadership elections.
Supporters like former State Sen. Richard Woodbury (U-Yarmouth) said it will make elections less divisive and more policy oriented. And detractors like former Maine Senate President Rick Bennett (R-Norway) said political campaigns by nature are combative, and ranked choice voting wouldn’t improve the process.
Woodbury characterized the 2014 gubernatorial election as following the same pattern as past ones.
“The main question was whether the independent candidate was a spoiler. The election’s focus was on strategic voting, not on the issues,” Woodbury said. “With RCV, voters can vote their conscience without worrying about their least favorite candidate winning.”
The referendum is being spearheaded by Ranked Choice Voting Maine and the League of Women Voters. Woodbury is a committee member. During the past year, Woodbury has traveled the state while advocating for the measure.
Woodbury and his fellow supporters believe the new system will end the trend over the past four decades of electing a governor with less than 50 percent of the vote.
In 1974, James L. Longley became the state’s first governor not enrolled in a political party. He won with 39.7 percent of the vote. Longley’s election began a trend in which 9 of the next 11 gubernatorial elections resulted in the winner receiving a plurality, not a majority, of votes.
Had Maine introduced rank choice voting 40 years ago, Woodbury said he doesn’t believe the ultimate winner would be different. He believes the major difference will be how elections are waged.
“Ninety percent of the time, the candidate with the most votes in Round One still wins,” he said. “What changes is the tone of the election. It becomes less combative and more substantive. We really believe this will change what happens after the election, and it’s time to govern.”
But Bennett, who is now the Maine Republican Party chairman, disagrees.
“My viewpoint is that ranked choice voting is a solution in search of a problem,” he said.
In 2014, Woodbury decided against seeking a fourth term. He blamed partisan politics for creating an adverse atmosphere in the state legislature.
“The harsh rhetoric from the campaign carries over to the legislative session, which makes it nearly impossible to get anything done,” Woodbury said.
He proposed legislation in 2013 to enact rank choice voting, but it failed to receive enough support for passage.
The committee plans on submitting the petition to the Secretary of State’s office this month.